The following editorial was published by the Freeman, SD Courier on September 9, 2014. Freeman Courier editorials reflect the opinion of news editor Jeremy Waltner and publisher Tim L. Waltner.
Four months ago, a Courier editorial called into question the practice of capital punishment. Problems with the execution of Clayton Lockett in McAlester, Okla., April 29 prompted the call to abolish the death penalty.
There was outrage over Lockett’s botched execution — a collapsed vein interrupted the process — but the desired end result was achieved when about half an hour after it was halted, Clayton Lockett died of a heart attack.
That incident led to widespread calls to halt lethal injections as a method of capital punishment until the process becomes better understood and more transparent.
But, as the May 7 editorial noted, that outrage is misplaced. Either we embrace putting someone to death as the ultimate act of justice — the brutality of the method be damned — or the United States joins other civilized nations around the world that have abolished the death penalty.
Last week there was another powerful example of why abolishing the death penalty is the right course to pursue.
Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were arrested in 1983 and charged with the rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie in Red Springs, N.C.
Half-brothers, McCollum and Brown were just 19 and 15 at the time. There was no physical evidence connecting them to the crime scene. But after lengthy police interrogations both confessed to the crime.
Although they recanted shortly after, they were convicted — largely on the basis of their false confessions.
Until last week, McCollum, now 50, had been on death row for 30 years, longer than anyone else in North Carolina history.
Until last week, Brown, now 46, was serving a life sentence.
Today McCollum and Brown are free men. DNA evidence implicated Roscoe Artis, a known sex offender whom the police had not investigated, despite the fact that he lived next to the crime scene. Artis is serving a life sentence in a North Carolina prison on a separate conviction, a rape and murder that happened less than a month after Buie’s rape and murder.
The convictions of McCollum and Brown were vacated last week and the two men were ordered released; they were freed from prison last Wednesday.
This turn of events is the result of an investigation by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission that found no DNA evidence at the crime scene that could be traced back to McCollum or Brown.
While justice was finally served, there are lots of questions including, why do innocent people confess to something they didn’t do.
In his book Convicting the Innocent (published five years ago), Brandon Garrett of the University of Virginia School of Law noted that 40 of the 250 wrongful convictions happened when innocent defendants confessed to crimes they did not commit.
In his study, Garrett found 14 of the 40 were mentally disabled or borderline mentally disabled, and three more were mentally ill. Thirteen of the 40 were juveniles. Nearly all were interrogated for more than three hours at a sitting. Seven described their involvement in the crime as coming to them in a “dream” or “vision.” Seven were told they had failed polygraph tests.
McCollum and Brown certainly fit the profile; they were teenagers and were considered mentally disabled; their IQs have consistently tested in the 50-60 range.
“It’s terrifying that our justice system allowed two intellectually disabled children to go to prison for a crime they had nothing to do with, and then to suffer there for 30 years,” said Ken Rose, a lawyer with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.
“It’s impossible to put into words what these men have been through and how much they have lost.”
The sobering reality is that the loss could have been worse. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that McCollum was on death row. While his exoneration can’t restore the 30 years he lost in jail for something he did not do, at least he can live the rest of his life in relative freedom.
It’s difficult to find a stronger argument against the death penalty than the reality that Henry McCollum, a mentally challenged young man, might well have been put to death for something he didn’t do, had it not been for the dilligence of people who saw the injustice in how the case against him and Leon Brown had been handled.
As noted here in May, the United States should join every other Western nation and bring an end to using the death penalty.